Whatever your expectations for Nintendo's Digital Event at E3 this year, it's safe to say that they probably didn't include squid-girls flinging ink at each other across a cityscape in team-based battles. A surprise in every sense of the word, Splatoon came out of nowhere to significant fanfare as one of Nintendo’s flagship titles on the show floor this year. Naturally, our curiosity was piqued, and after going hands-on with Nintendo's newest four-on-four multiplayer cephalopod sim, we swam away thoroughly charmed by its slimy brand of good clean fun.
The objective in Splatoon is simple: as part of a team of four, you’ll try paint the town red, blue, orange, purple — or whatever the gloriously garish colour of your team's ink might be — in a bid to have the most territory marked with your team's tint when the clock runs out. Your character can switch between humanoid ('Inkling') and squid forms at any time, and each has its purpose; you can run and shoot ink in human form, while being a squid lets you swim gracefully through any inked-up areas – including up walls and under grates – which grants a massive speed boost while also recharging your ink reserves. Coming into contact with an opponent's ink, however – whether by swimming, walking through it, or having it squirted directly in your face – will drain your health, or even see you get 'splattered' back to the re-spawn point back at base. A further wrinkle lies in the fact that only ink that can be seen from a bird's-eye view counts for scoring purposes, so while wall art will let your team get around quicker, it doesn't directly affect the percentage of the playing field under your control.
Splatoon controls a bit like a third-person (ink-)shooter, with the GamePad's gyroscope used to aim, the left stick to move, and the 'ZR' trigger to fire. Everything worked extremely well in our experience, and when paired with the right stick for smaller camera adjustments, the gyroscopic aiming became second nature very quickly, feeling as quick and as accurate as any dual-stick set-up. It's also significantly more intuitive, and set up in a way that should let everyone get in on the action fairly quickly, giving Nintendo’s brand of team-based shooter the unique asset of being something you could genuinely play with friends and family who don’t normally game.
Upon diving into a game, the action itself is fluid, frenzied, and fun, thanks especially to the fact that being an Inkling is incredibly enjoyable. While it seems almost silly to say about a game starring squid, there's really nothing else like it; hopping into the fight, spraying neon sunshine everywhere, painting a path up a wall and then turning into a mollusc to slide smoothly and speedily through your viscous vertical vandalism – it all feels wonderful.
You aren't glued to the ground by gravity either; as you play, the GamePad displays a real-time map of the entire playing field, and tapping any of your team-mates will send you flying – literally, in a charmingly animated arc – to their side. Not only does this eliminate the uneventful trek from base to the front lines every time you get sent back to respawn, it also enables quick retreats and facilitates teamwork by letting players teleport each other around. It’s also a nice use of the GamePad, with the touch-to-teleport feature a perfect example of something that’s both well-suited for and easy to pull off with the touchscreen.
The arena available in the demo was a focused and relatively compact maze of city features, which kept the competition in close quarters and made for a lot of back-and-forth in inking territory. On subsequent plays, we discovered some hidden paths and verticality, including a few ledges that were tailor-made for raining down dye from above. The demo also showcased two weapons in addition to the standard-issue super-soaker: a paintbomb which you can lob anytime your ink is over 70% full, and a big-blast bazooka that fires colossal columns of colour continuously, for a brief time – this special attack becomes available after you've covered a certain amount of the landscape with your team’s ink.
We played quite a few rounds of Splatoon on the show-floor, as did plenty of other people at Nintendo's booth — the line to play seemed second only to the venerable Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, and it’s been a hit for a reason: Splatoon embodies the same sort of 'digital playground' mentality that's made Nintendo Land's chase games party-staples of the Wii U-owning world. It’s easy to pick up, has a focus on teamwork and it's very viscerally satisfying – covering a townscape with technicolour goop is exactly the kind of surreal, silly thrill that video games were made for. And just as in Nintendo Land's Mario Chase, after the round ends, you're treated to an overhead view of the results; in our playtests these post-match Pollocks were the source of both congratulatory cheers and utter surprise among team-members – in the heat of battle it can be easy to feel like you're doing pretty well while forgetting about an entire section of the map.
Another part of Splatoon’s appeal comes from how delightfully, anarchically analogue territory control is. In similar games of the sort, teams might control a certain number of ‘rooms’, ‘tiles’, or ‘objects’. In Splatoon, every drop matters; your ink blasts don’t cover a blocked-out ‘section’ of the floor, they land exactly where and how you’d expect a slightly soupy fluid to, and cover or get covered by the other team’s ink on a drop-by-drop basis. By the end of a game you’ll often see multicoloured swaths of floor that tell stories of epic squid struggles through their intertwined swirls, dots and drops of ink.
It’s also worth noting that this is a very good looking game. The textures and fluid motion of the ink stand out, as do the detailed character models (especially adorable in squid form), sunny environment, and the nearly explosive use of colour — while the differences between Splatoon and the grittier team-based shooters on show elsewhere in the hall were many, the smile-inducing colour palette may be the most prominent of all. Lots of little touches round out the presentation, like ink ringing the edges of your view when you take damage or try to swim through the opposing team’s ink.
So far, Splatoon is shaping up to be something really special. We’re still waiting on plenty of details – including the specifics of online play, how it will be retailed (could this be another free-to-play effort, like fellow online shooter Steel Diver: Sub Wars?), if it will contain a chat feature for team-mates and the number and nature of different arenas, among much else – but even in this early state, it sports bucketfuls of Nintendo charm (along with bucketfuls of ink) and a dynamic ‘one more game’ quality that could see it lighting up Friends Lists on Wii Us for a very long time.